September 7th, 2005

Egrets Reading

When Poems Become Dated

Ever so often, the world changes under our noses, forever dating a poet’s unpublished work.

A couple years ago, I wrote a cinquain sequence for a poetry contest honoring the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. It was called “In Jefferson’s Purchase” and unfortunately did not win. However, I put a research effort into this poem, looking up state birds and flowers for all of the states which were included in the Louisiana Purchase, and had hoped to place it elsewhere. But now, since the closing cinquain in this five stanza crown cinquain sequence is:

Jazz beats
the French Quarter --
once purchased for a song,
two hundred years later and still

this poem has become a victim of Hurricane Katrina and will never see the light of day.

I’d like to clarify that I’m not trying to mock the heartaches and struggles of the human victims of the hurricane and levee break by bellyaching about a relatively trivial problem like the fate of an unpublished poem, but to simply point out that a poet needs to be able to adapt to a changing world when it comes to reworking/circular filing old unpublished poems on hand.

In some cases, a poem can simply be edited. But for a poem like my “In Jefferson’s Purchase” poem, where the climax depends upon something which suddenly no longer exists, no editing can ever make it relevant again unless the point of the poem is a cruise down memory lane or events change once more in the future.

My Louisiana Purchase poem example is an extreme case, but it underlines an important point, simply that a poet needs to be constantly aware of events in the evolving world. This need exists beyond the here and now. I think a science fiction poet, for example, needs to be on top of recent discoveries, technologies and inventions. A fantasy poet needs to be familiar with published fantasy to avoid creating fantasy kingdoms too similar to another fantasy writer’s.

A common stereotype of a poet is that of a person who is somehow isolated from the reality of the world. While it is true that a poet may see the world differently, may see patterns of images that no one else sees, I believe the true poet needs to be grounded in the reality of the world so that his/her visions can beckon readers to reach for dreams of things beyond.